For nearly a millennium, the Kingdom of Hungary was one of the major powers of Central Europe, central to the history and influence of the rulers and kingdoms of the region. Multiethnic and multilinguistic, the kingdom's cultural contributions and military history were critical to the interchange between Western and Eastern Europe. The kingdom is shot through with rivers, including the mighty Danube (which bisects Budapest), and includes the open plains of the Carpathian Basin, fringed with a few high ranges of mountains. Its thermal springs have attracted attention since the time of the Romans. Sitting astride the major cross-land routes of Europe, the Kingdom's strategic position made it a prize for royal houses and ambitious nobles alike.
When the Magyars under Arpad established the Principality of Hungary in the tenth century, they laid aside their semi-nomadic lifestyle and its accompanying cycles of raiding in favor of a more feudal existence, although they retained elements of their previous lifestyle, including introducing Slavic loanwords from their new subjects into their vernacular. The Kingdom itself was established by Stephen I, King of the newly-created Kingdom of Hungary, and a saint of the church for his efforts at cementing Christianity as the official religion. The territory of the Kingdom of Hungary became known as the “Lands of the Crown of Saint Stephen” in synecdoche (although legally, the various crown lands had specific legal status related to the monarch).
The nobility of the Kingdom of Hungary enjoyed a high degree of liberty, and the king was relatively constrained after Andras II issued the Golden Bull of 1222. Nobles could not be taxed, could disobey the king if he acted outside the law, did not need to go to war beyond the borders of the kingdom, and established something of an equality of title between nobles, rather than a strong hierarchy. Similarities between the Golden Bull and the Magna Carta in England are notable.
The Mongol invasion of Europe under Subutai in 1241 was disastrous for the Kingdom (as it was for much of Europe). King Bela IV built a series of border fortresses to prevent a future invasion, but further conflict with other European powers weakened the kingdom and eventually the Arpad dynasty died out in 1301. The Angevins ruled for almost a century afterwards, followed by a series of non-dynastic rulers, including Holy Roman Emperors.
As the Middle Ages came to an end, and the Early Modern Period was just a set of ideas being discussed in Italy, Matthias Corvinus was elected to the throne by the Diet. Under his reign, the Kingdom expanded militarily and reformed the administration. His reign is viewed as one of the golden ages of the Kingdom of Hungary—an era which came to a crashing end at the disastrous Battle of Mohacs between Suleiman I of the Ottomans and Louis II of Hungary.
The Battle of Mohacs is one of the most significant battles fought in Europe. A tiny Hungarian army, organized in an obsolete feudal force of heavy knights and conscript infantry (which had abandoned military innovations the Black Army had pioneered a generation before!) was crushed by an Ottoman army almost twice it size, organized around the modern principles of artillery and a spine of elite, musket-armed Janissaries. King Louis of Hungary and a huge portion of the Hungarian nobility were slaughtered on the battlefield. After the battle, the Ottomans partitioned the Kingdom of Hungary with the Holy Roman Empire, and used it as a buffer state against the Holy Roman Empire.
For the next three and a half centuries, the Kingdom of Hungary was often in conflict between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire, never strong enough to exert its own will, but too powerful to be ignored in the geopolitical calculations of Central Europe. The traditional liberties of the nobility were enshrined in tradition, and the Hapsburg rulers of the Holy Roman Empire were frequently forced to reiterate these rights in exchange for Hungarian support, either political or military. Consequently the spirit of Hungarian identity was never entirely extinguished.
This independent spirit led to a number of attempted uprising and open rebellions against Hapsburg control. During the War of Spanish Succession, the Transylvanian prince Francis II Rakoczi staged a rebellion (creatively called Rakoczi's Rebellion) between 1703-1711, but was unsuccessful due to a lack of allies and foreign support. The European revolutions of 1848 almost saw Hungary gain its long-awaited independence. With revolution breaking out across their holdings, the Hapsburgs nearly lost complete control of Hungary to a young generation of ardent patriots. Only through an alliance between Russia and Austria could the Hapsburgs regain their original control. In the Compromise of 1867, the Hapsburg Empire officially became a dual monarchy: Austria-Hungary. Finally, the Hapsburgs were forced to recognize the centrality of the Kingdom of Hungary to their empire.
The Kingdom dissolved after World War I as part of the breakup of the Hapsburg Empire. Short-lived republics governed in the interwar years, and in the turmoil leading up to World War 2 the kingdom was re-established by resurgent right-wing forces. Hungary joined the Axis powers during World War 2 (a particularly dark chapter in Hungary's history). The kingdom was occupied by the advancing Soviet forces in 1944, ending the Kingdom of Hungary (although not the nation of Hungary) for good.
The capital of Hungary, Budapest, is one of the great cities of Europe, with magnificent architecture, a vibrant culture, and cosmopolitan fashions. Formed from three cities (Buda, Pest, and Obuda or “Old Buda”), and the site of settlements dating back to the Celts, the city carries its long and fascinating history into the present day. The city's central region along the Danube is a UNESCO World Heritage site.